Which Foods Have the Lowest Carbon Footprint?

Which Foods Have the Lowest Carbon Footprint?
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How much greenhouse gas does the production of different foods cause measured in miles driven or lightbulb hour equivalents?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Our eating habits are making us and the planet increasingly unhealthy.” Ours is a lose–lose situation; “a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.” “In consideration of the mounting evidence regarding the environmental effects of foods,” for the 2015 to 2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the scientific advisory committee “included for the first time a chapter focused on food safety and sustainability,” concluding: “a dietary pattern that is higher in plant­based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal­based foods is [not only] more health promoting [but also] associated with lesser environmental impact…” Despite unprecedented public support, this and other sustainability language was not surprisingly vanished from the final Dietary Guidelines published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They’re not even sufficiently sticking to the science on healthy eating either, including no, or too lax, limits for animal-source foods, despite the available evidence. Even if they ignored planetary health altogether and just stuck to the latest evidence on healthy eating, it would have knock-on environmental benefits. Replacing animal-source foods with plant-based ones would not only improve nutrition and help people live longer, but could reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 84 percent.

In general, plant-based foods “cause fewer adverse environmental effects” by nearly any measure. In terms of carbon footprint, all the foods that are the equivalent of driving more than a mile per serving are animal products. Here are the greenhouse gas emissions from various foods. Even though something like a lamb chop or farmed fish may be the worst, eating chicken still causes like five times the global warming than even something like tropical fruit. Though the climate superstars are legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils).

“For example, in the United States, substituting beans for beef at the national level could [alone] deliver up to 75 percent of the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and spare an area of land 1.5 times the size of California” (not to mention the health benefits). And it’s not just greenhouse gases. Kidney beans required “approximately 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide[s].”

So yeah, according to the prestigious EAT-Lancet Commission, more plant-based may be better, but even a shift towards a healthier dietary pattern “emphasising whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes without necessarily [eating strictly-plant-based], would be beneficial.” In Europe, for example, just “halving the consumption of meat, dairy…, and eggs… would achieve [up to] a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen emissions” and greenhouse gas emissions and require about a fifth less land. “In addition, the dietary changes would also lower health risks,” reducing cardiovascular mortality, their leading cause of death.

Note, however, that “minimizing environmental impacts does not necessarily maximize human health.” Yes, animal products, dairy, eggs, fish, and other meat releases significantly more greenhouse gas per serving than foods from plants; eating added sugar and oil isn’t going to do your own body any favors.

In California, including more animal products in your diet requires an additional 10,000 quarts of water a week. So, that’s like taking 150 more showers a week. Even just skipping meat on weekdays could conserve thousands of gallons a week compared to eating meat every day, and cut your daily carbon footprint and total ecological footprint by about 40 percent.

Some countries are actually doing something about it. “The Chinese government,” for example, “has outlined a plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50 percent,” whereas much of the rest of the world appears to be doing the complete opposite, pumping billions of taxpayer dollars into subsidizing the meat, dairy, and egg industries. We can certainly all try to do our part; however, an obstacle to dietary change may be “consumers’ underestimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food,” but may be aided by labeling. For example, imagine picking up a can of a beef noodle soup and seeing this. The carbon footprint of a single half-cup serving is like leaving a light on for 39 hours straight. And not some eco-bulb, an old-school 100-watt hot incandescent, compared to a meat-free vegetable soup—a difference of 34 light-bulb hours. You can imagine someone getting on your case for unnecessarily leaving on a light for 34 minutes, but this is 34 hours just eating a different half cup of soup.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Our eating habits are making us and the planet increasingly unhealthy.” Ours is a lose–lose situation; “a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.” “In consideration of the mounting evidence regarding the environmental effects of foods,” for the 2015 to 2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the scientific advisory committee “included for the first time a chapter focused on food safety and sustainability,” concluding: “a dietary pattern that is higher in plant­based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal­based foods is [not only] more health promoting [but also] associated with lesser environmental impact…” Despite unprecedented public support, this and other sustainability language was not surprisingly vanished from the final Dietary Guidelines published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They’re not even sufficiently sticking to the science on healthy eating either, including no, or too lax, limits for animal-source foods, despite the available evidence. Even if they ignored planetary health altogether and just stuck to the latest evidence on healthy eating, it would have knock-on environmental benefits. Replacing animal-source foods with plant-based ones would not only improve nutrition and help people live longer, but could reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 84 percent.

In general, plant-based foods “cause fewer adverse environmental effects” by nearly any measure. In terms of carbon footprint, all the foods that are the equivalent of driving more than a mile per serving are animal products. Here are the greenhouse gas emissions from various foods. Even though something like a lamb chop or farmed fish may be the worst, eating chicken still causes like five times the global warming than even something like tropical fruit. Though the climate superstars are legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils).

“For example, in the United States, substituting beans for beef at the national level could [alone] deliver up to 75 percent of the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and spare an area of land 1.5 times the size of California” (not to mention the health benefits). And it’s not just greenhouse gases. Kidney beans required “approximately 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide[s].”

So yeah, according to the prestigious EAT-Lancet Commission, more plant-based may be better, but even a shift towards a healthier dietary pattern “emphasising whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes without necessarily [eating strictly-plant-based], would be beneficial.” In Europe, for example, just “halving the consumption of meat, dairy…, and eggs… would achieve [up to] a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen emissions” and greenhouse gas emissions and require about a fifth less land. “In addition, the dietary changes would also lower health risks,” reducing cardiovascular mortality, their leading cause of death.

Note, however, that “minimizing environmental impacts does not necessarily maximize human health.” Yes, animal products, dairy, eggs, fish, and other meat releases significantly more greenhouse gas per serving than foods from plants; eating added sugar and oil isn’t going to do your own body any favors.

In California, including more animal products in your diet requires an additional 10,000 quarts of water a week. So, that’s like taking 150 more showers a week. Even just skipping meat on weekdays could conserve thousands of gallons a week compared to eating meat every day, and cut your daily carbon footprint and total ecological footprint by about 40 percent.

Some countries are actually doing something about it. “The Chinese government,” for example, “has outlined a plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50 percent,” whereas much of the rest of the world appears to be doing the complete opposite, pumping billions of taxpayer dollars into subsidizing the meat, dairy, and egg industries. We can certainly all try to do our part; however, an obstacle to dietary change may be “consumers’ underestimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food,” but may be aided by labeling. For example, imagine picking up a can of a beef noodle soup and seeing this. The carbon footprint of a single half-cup serving is like leaving a light on for 39 hours straight. And not some eco-bulb, an old-school 100-watt hot incandescent, compared to a meat-free vegetable soup—a difference of 34 light-bulb hours. You can imagine someone getting on your case for unnecessarily leaving on a light for 34 minutes, but this is 34 hours just eating a different half cup of soup.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

This is the second in a three-part video series. If you missed the first one, check out Win-Win Dietary Solutions to the Climate Crisis. Stay tuned for Which Diets Have the Lowest Carbon Footprint?

I also have an older video, Diet & Climate Change: Cooking Up a Storm, and a digital download on using plant-based or cultivated meat as a climate (and pandemic) mitigation strategy.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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